“Once you go through a high conflict divorce you are never the same,” said Dana in an interview I had with her a few months ago.
Dana divorced her husband in 1999. Her ex, Jim had been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and he has made Dana and their children’s lives miserable for 20 years. Due to the long, drawn-out legal battle and Jim’s emotional abuse before and since the divorce Dana was recently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She is being treated as an inpatient and discussed what life has been like for her over the last few years.
High Conflict Divorce and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
“I feel as if I’ve been in the middle of a war zone for an extended period of time. I’ve lived with daily fear for years; there has been no relief because some sort of conflict with my ex was always lurking around the corner.” Dana says. I didn’t have time to process one event before I was dealing with another one.
When divorced from someone like my ex you don’t have time to stop, process your feelings, grieve and move on. You have to have your guard up at all times, be focused and ready for what is coming next and you learn quickly that there will be something coming.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a normal emotional and psychological reaction to trauma (a painful or shocking experience) that exists outside of someone’s normal life experiences.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health people who experience a traumatic event will react with shock, anger, nervousness, fear, or even guilt. For most people, these common reactions go away over time, but for someone experiencing PTSD, these feelings continue to escalate until the person has difficulty living a normal life. Someone with PTSD usually has symptoms for longer than a month and cannot function as well as they did before the traumatic event.
In Dana’s case, prolonged exposure to trauma didn’t give her the opportunity to heal from the divorce because the divorce was ongoing.
“It’s like I’m constantly in survival mode,” Dana, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee says. “I perceive a lot of things as a threat. My reaction is an immediate defense for survival. I’m hypervigilant and find it hard to enjoy life.
My reaction to an unexpected tap on the shoulder from behind is quite different from someone without PTSD. I jump, scream or run as if I’m under attack. It is hard to explain but everything feels like an attack on my safety or security. A car turned in front of me one day, there was plenty of room, no danger of the car hitting me but I froze. I was unable to drive ahead, could only sit and cry. I’ve lost myself and my ability to calm myself after even the smallest adrenalin rush.”
Symptoms of PTSD are often grouped into three main categories that include:
- Reliving the Traumatic Experience – Survivors of trauma may experience nightmares or flashbacks of the traumatic event. This might be triggered by something that reminds the survivor of the event like the anniversary of the event or a similar location or even a language.
- Avoidance – People may remove themselves from people or situations that are similar in some way to the traumatic event. Survivors may become detached from their loved ones and lose interest in their previous passions.
- Increased Arousal – Those with PTSD may become more sensitive to their emotions or bodily sensations. They may have high anxiety levels, insomnia, trouble focusing, be hyper-vigilant (always on guard), among other symptoms.
“I’m constantly under some kind of pressure,” Dana says. “I’m not the same happy, loving person I once was. It feels like there’s a barrier wall in front of me and I can’t scale it.”
Recovering from PTSD is a process and differs for each survivor. The goal for PTSD treatment is to reduce the physical and emotional symptoms as well as improve the survivor’s ability to interact fully with their everyday life.
“First and foremost is some kind of personal conversation, talking or psychotherapeutic relationship,” Dr. Arthur S. Blank Jr., a Vietnam veteran and a renowned expert on PTSD says in a video for The Washington Post. “People need to be able to talk about whatever they have to talk about to someone who is an experienced listener.”
To supplement psychotherapy treatment for patients diagnosed with PTSD, sometimes doctors will prescribe medications like antidepressants as well as many other kinds of prescriptions that can help people along the road to recovery.
“I’ve been told by doctors that time will tell,” Dana says. “Medication does only so much. Each individual has a different reaction to what traumas they suffer.”
When asked if she had any advice for women going through a high conflict divorce, Dana offered this…
“Know when to give up the fight. I expected the legal system to protect me, to make sure my ex was punished when he defied court orders. I was proven wrong over and over again. My ex-husband left and took 87% of his income. Leaving me to raise three children on my own.
I worried about feeding them, clothing them, and housing them. I worried about their emotional welfare and I worked long hours. On top of that, I was a victim to his ongoing legal abuse for years after the divorce was final.
At times I worked two jobs to make ends meet. My children and I were trying to live our lives, struggling to get by and at the same time my ex was reaching in from a distance to make it just that much harder. You can’t look to the legal system to protect you and the only way to win over someone who wants you to suffer is to give up the fight. Let it go, your health is more important.”
FAQs about High Conflict Divorce and PTSD
1. How do I know if I’m going through a high-conflict divorce?
Does the thought of receiving a text message or email from your ex cause you anxiety? Does your ex seem hell-bent on making your life miserable? If you’re going through a high-conflict divorce you know you’re going through a high-conflict divorce! You won’t have to ask.
2. What are some of the signs of a high-conflict divorce?
The cost of your divorce will be exponentially higher than an amicable divorce. Your ex will be argumentative and objectionable about everything you propose regarding financial issues and child custody. Like I’ve said before, if you are experiencing it, you won’t have to ask what it is.
3. How do I know if I have PTSD?
Do you feel hypervigilant, like you are constantly worried about issues surrounding your ex and the divorce? Do you avoid reading email or text messages from your ex out of fear and anxiety? Do you get startled easily? If you have these symptoms you may very well have PTSD.
This is a great article. I’ve often wondered about this myself. Since my divorce and multi year custody battle I’ve been been the same. Constant fear of reprisal, worried she will not let me see them, years and years of verbal and emotional abuse both to me and in front of the kids. It’s extremely hard for me to function most days as I live in fear. I also struggle with guilt and shame because I feel as if I’ve let my kids down. This is something for me to explore.
DivorcedMoms Editor says
You should definitely explore the possibility of PTSD, John. I wish you all the best.
I read your article on PTSD with great interest. My exhusband threatened to take everything I had and my two daughters. He did exactly what he threatened! It took 40 years but he mananged to get both my girls too!